2020 Music Reviews

Album Review: Fontaines D.C. ‘A Hero’s Death’

Fontaines D.C. A Hero's Death

In 2019, Dublin-hailing noiseniks Fontaines D.C. unexpectedly grabbed guitar music by the throat with their feral, intensely focused debut album, Dogrel. The band returns barely more than a year later with their latest release, A Hero’s Death — a burst of the frantic, restless productivity that sits at the heart of the five-piece’s creative impetus. Even more so than on their stellar first release, the band oscillates deftly between the dual conditions of modern life, overstimulation and burnout. A Hero’s Death is an articulate, energetic work, bristling with moody post-punk fury, and it signals an incremental consolidation and increased sophistication to the still-green quintet’s robust, fulsome sound.

A Hero’s Death opens on the chugging, Joy Division-leaning lethargy of “I Don’t Belong,” a cavernous, layered dirge heavy with the fatigue of being young and alert on an inhospitable, dying planet. Lead vocalist Grian Chatten’s weary drawl meanders through dissociative assertions that he “don’t wanna belong to anyone,” beset on all sides by the agendas of unknowable, exploitative forces. The album frequently traces a sonic through-line to influential acts of the 70s and 80s, and Fontaines D.C. wear their influences proudly by reengineering the vintage post-punk sneer into something distinctly contemporary. The band builds the energy as the record ploughs ahead, with Tom Coll’s frantic drumming and the duelling guitars of Carlos O’Connell and Conor Curley trading spacey shoegaze with dramatic Sergio Leone twangs on “Love is the Main Thing,” while “A Lucid Dream” leans into a dissonant wall-of-sound aesthetic, threatening to consume a desperate, ranting vocal from Chatten.

Fontaines D.C. started life as a poetry collective when its members first met in music college, and this translates into lyrics that are purposefully constructed — literary, yet lucid. The slower tracks on A Hero’s Death tap effectively into that signature millennial malaise, as on the steady, loop-driven “You Said,” where a tired-out Chatten laments that today’s youth “don’t get time enough to play” amid a world that demands they be “operating faster.” A track like “Living in America,” too, works to dismantle the aspirational myths of the neoliberal West over oppressive, low-register riffs and a foreboding, fuzzy groove. Returning producer Dan Carey does well to keep these tracks dynamic and textured as they move along at a more deliberate pace.

Though Chatten’s distinct Dublin brogue makes no secret of the band’s pride in their homeland, some of the album’s most intriguing cuts take this further in mining a more traditional approach. The misty arpeggios and lush synths of “Oh Such a Spring” back up a lyric that spins a mournful Celtic yarn in line with time-honoured Irish folk songwriting conventions. A loose, bluesy instrumental alternates with gorgeous choral backing vocals and mournful strings on “Sunny,”  which adopts the voice of an absentee father regretfully tracing the highs and lows of his life. While these songs never lose the distorted edge of Fontaines D.C.’s assuredly punk sound, there’s more than a little in common with the stylings of infamous native rabble-rouser Shane McGowan, who would surely approve of the wry inflections with which the band skew the musical traditions of their forebears.

British and American guitar music seems to be in the middle of its second post-punk revival (post-post-post punk, possibly?), following on from a wave of bands in the mid-00s including The Strokes, The White Stripes and Interpol who stripped away the more politicised, oppositional aspects of the genre in favour of a rowdier, more song-centred approach. Fontaines D.C., in the company of acts such as IDLES, Shame and Preoccupations, returns to the mode’s angrier roots, and the release of A Hero’s Story was led out with two sterling singles that capture this most adeptly. “Televised Mind” is an agitated, Krautrocky number built on Conor Deegan’s relentless bassline as Chatten’s voice echoes frantic sloganeering as if down a megaphone. The standout title track has a pacy, driving chug in line with the best of The Stooges. Its resounding call that “life ain’t always empty” precedes a list of rules for living that reads like a manifesto. It’s a spirited, rollicking ride, recalling the Reaganite delirium of Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” or the bitter sarcasm of the “Choose life” speech from Trainspotting. Coloured with falsetto oohs and bops on backing vocal, it’s a staggering affront to the hollow, nostalgic cocoon of late capitalism.

But for all the confusion and fury, Fontaines D.C.’s rail against the established order is not without its optimism as the album reaches its close. A buoyant four-to-the-floor drumbeat and some bright Clash-indebted power chords on “I Was Not Born” belie a more hopeful streak that implores the listener that they were not “born into this world to do another man’s bidding.”It’s the album’s big stadium-anthem moment, but one that doesn’t undermine the forensic aggression of what it precedes. Closing track “No” might, in its shimmering indie-ballad conventionality, be one of the most surprising on A Hero’s Death. Its layered, reverb-drenched guitars bring the signature work of U2 axeman the Edge to mind. As a closer, it’s rousing and familiar, effective for inspiring action and resistance against the paranoia and paralysis evoked on many of the album’s preceding tracks. Chatten urges the listener that they do not “owe it all to grief,” that there’s more to life than this grim, digital claustrophobia (surely only amplified amid the Covid-19 pandemic) and that solidarity, love and friendship are the key to salvation. Strangely, it might be the most “punk” assertion on A Hero’s Death and serves as confirmation of the considerable dexterity with which Fontaines D.C. is able express the collective frustrations of their generation.

Rhys Handley (@RhysHandley2113) is a journalist and film writer from Yorkshire in England. Now based in London, he is the biggest Talking Heads fan who still hasn’t seen Stop Making Sense.